Sunday, May 22, 2011

36. A Review of "Pith Helmet 2"

Wellll, hello.  Yes, it's been a while since I posted anything, you're right.  Why?  Well, the usual reasons.  Work, mainly.  I got recalled to the job from which I was furloughed over two years ago, but it's a job that requires a LOT of traveling.  Traveling entails me being away from my painting table, my gaming table, and my figures needing paint; ergo, I have accomplished nothing about which to write.  So I have not posted anything at all.

I do realize that the header on my blog says, "With occasional outbursts from the Wisdom of Kelly, a Tao if you will.  Plus, as an added bonus, further proof as to why I should be Emperor Of The Known Universe," but I haven't really had anything important to say.  In which case the wisdom of my mother applies:  if you don't have anything nice (or important) to say, then don't say anything at all.  Which is all the more reason why I should be Emperor of the Known Universe, don't you think?

However, I did promise a while back that I would "have a more detailed description of the actual rules, and how I molded a story around a solo game."  That's something I can do without necessarily having access to my gaming station at home; I can write from my laptop, since the rules are a .pdf anyhow.

The rules in question are called "Pith Helmet 2," subtitled "1-Page Colonial Era Miniatures Rules" by Don Bailey.  I first encountered them in the pages of Historical Miniature Gamer magazine (now sadly defunct) issue #5, where Don had written up a review of his rules describing a solo game he had played as part of a larger campaign with other gamers across the world.  At the end of the article was an invitation to get a copy of the rules via email from Don, so I did.

They are front-and-back on a single 8-1/2" x 11" sheet of paper, with a couple of extra 1- to 2-page documents for add-ons, optional rules, and clarifications.  For many moons the only way to get ahold of the rules was to email Don and ask for them, but a short while ago that changed.  Stephen Luscombe, owner of the fantastic The British Empire website, announced that he was collating every set of Colonial-era rules he could find, with links to downloads and other sites; and that he would host orphaned rules as necessary.  I sent him Don's contact info, and now the rules et al can be downloaded directly from The British Empire site for free.  Don was very generous to allow it, and Stephen is very generous to provide the hosting service.  I definitely raise a glass in toast to both of you, gentlemen!

While you are there, you will be amazed at the sheer quantity of commerically-available and free rulesets solely on the subject of Colonialism.  It's a wonderful thing; we live in a true Golden Era.

I have played a few games of Pith Helmet, but my recent write-up was the largest I had played yet.  The crucial difference between Pith Helmet and most other rulesets is that Pith Helmet has a built-in solo capability, in that the system is highly Reaction driven.  Your opponent is run by the game system itself, which can make for unpredictable twists of fate.  This is both good and bad, depending on your point of view and whether or not you like more or less control of your troops during a battle.

A Brief Synopsis of the Rules

Of course, the rules can be run with two players as well; as in other Reaction-driven systems (such as Two Hour Wargames' offerings) some of the control exerted by the player over his miniatures is removed, making for a more "realistic" game.  Pith Helmet was my first experience with Reaction-driven rules, and it blew me away.  It actually made playing solo fun instead of work.  I have since sampled THW's Chain Reaction 3.0, ATZ, and several others; and while they are similar to Pith Helmet, there are still enough differences for me to have a little trouble understanding how the gameplay is supposed to go.  Not so with Pith Helmet.  The few questions I did have were quickly answered by Don via email, and the consistent tenor of the answers helped me to be able to solve my own future rules queries.

You will need 2d10, a few d6s, and a deck of normal playing cards.  There is no predetermined miniature scale in the rules.

Each game turn has 4 phases - Command, Action, Melee, and Morale.  The Action and Melee Phases may be interrupted by one or more Reaction Sequences.

Unit capabilites are divided into simple Unit Type / Nationalities:  British, German; Sikh, Gurkha, Japanese; U.S., Boer; Other European, Egyptian, Punjabis; Imperial Chinese, Native Levies; Zulu; Pathan; and Boxer, Dervish, Other Natives.  Each Unit Type is assigned an Initiative rating with an Officer, with an NCO, and with no leader; as well as  a Marksmanship rating with Firearms or Native Missiles.  The average unit size is 10 - 20 figures.

In the Command Phase, each side rolls a d100 for each unit/squad and compares the roll to the unit's Initiative.  This will result in 0 to 4 Action Points (AP) per unit per turn.  Better trained units with Officers are more likely to receive more AP than poorly trained units without a leader.  Use a d6 or another similar marker to show the AP for each unit.  Example:  The Tirailleurs Sénégalais in this picture have 1 AP remaining.

In the Action Phase, the sequence of actions is determined by a normal deck of playing cards.  This nicely randomizes which units can move.  Each side draws 1 card.  The higher value acts first (Face = 10, Ace = 11, Red beats Black, Redraw ties).  Repeat until both sides ‘pass’, or no AP left.

Face, Ace:  Hasty Orders.  Only 1 Unit may act.
Number:  Up to 1/2 of units may act.
Red:  Hasty Action.  Unit(s) may only expend 1 AP.
Black:  Unit(s) may expend up to all AP.

This elegantly represents the logistical problems of battlefield command and control.  Your general may be a on hill near the rear of the battle, and may not be able to communicate his desires to his troops very effectively.

Therefore, if you draw a Red Ace, only one unit on your side can act, and it can only expend 1 Action Point.  This represents a loss of communication, so the unit will probably just hunker down, or shoot.

However if you draw a Black Five, up to half of your units may expend all of their AP.  So you will be more able to enact that flanking movement.

Units can 'pass' their action, in effect saving AP for possible Reactions, or for charging into melee.

Each Action Point allows a unit to do ONE of the following:
* Move
* change formation
* mount or dismount
* load or unload wagon or boat
* Fire
* move up or down 1 building floor
* limber or unlimber gun
* Attempt to erect or take down ladder (roll d10 ≤ 7)
* Attempt to unjam machine gun (Maxim roll d10≤ 9, other: d10 ≤ 7). Natives must roll ≤ 5

The heart of the system is its Reaction Sequence:  Reactions may themselves trigger more reactions.  Triggering Reactions:  Any unit that has AP remaining temporarily interrupts the Action Phase with a Reaction whenever:
* The Unit is Fired Upon
* An Enemy Unit Moves to within 10 Inches of the Unit

You then roll on the Reaction Table, rolling a d100 vs the unit's Coolness level (which is the same as it's Initiative rating) to determine the unit's response.  Reactions range from no reaction to Firing to Retreating.  Each Reaction costs that unit 1 AP.  If a unit has no AP, it has a chance to become Shaken.  Because it is a Colonial-era set of rules, there are some simple unit formations allowed:  Open, Column, Line, Square, Mass, Towed or Pushed Artillery, road bonues, etc.  Each formation is able to move a set number of inches, sometimes modified by whether the unit is Imperial or Native.

A unit must stop if it comes within 10” & LOS of the enemy.  This prompts a Reaction check by the enemy.

Weapons fire is unit to unit, and is accomplished by designating the target unit in range and Line of Sight.  If the firing unit is greater than 10 figures, divide it into "fire groups" of less than or equal to 10 figures.  This makes computing the Probability of Hit (POH) easier.  Weapons are subdivided into simple types:  Spear, Bow, Pistol 10"; Cavalry Carbine 15"; Rifle 25"; Machine Gun 30"; Artillery 40" - 60".  The rules assume all members of a unit are armed the same.

POH is calculated by taking the unit's Markmanship rating + (5 x the number of firing figures) + any Modifiers.  It sound initially complicated, but it resolves itself very quickly and easily.

You then roll d100 vs POH and find the results on the To-Hit Table.  There are modifiers for targets in light cover, shaken, open formation, etc; as well as firing unit modifiers, such as if they are mounted, or in open formation, etc.; very standard, basic types of modifiers that will be familiar to all wargamers.

Casualties caused by the To-Hit Table range from 1 - 3, possibly including Officers or NCOs.  Casualties go to the Rally Zone.

In the Melee Phase, units must charge or be charged to engage in melee.  Any unit that has at least one action left after the Action Phase is over, is eligible to charge.  The order of charges is determined using the same card-draw method as the Action Phase.

A charging unit obeys all movement rules except it need not stop if within 10” of an enemy unit.  A charging unit must attempt to move at least one figure into base contact with the enemy. If it fails, it immediately becomes shaken.

Charge Movement Rates per AP Expended:  Infantry: 9” + d10”; Cavalry: 15” + d10”.

From this you can see that it is possible to charge from outside the 10" range (important because at 10" you prompt a Reaction check if you simply move), but if you are greatly outside that range you should make sure you have sufficient AP to get there in the event of a poor d10 roll.  However, it's not a given:  all charges prompt a Charge Reaction.  Any unit charged MUST test it's reaction. Roll d100 vs the unit’s Coolness Level and consult the Charge Reaction Table:  the results range from retreat shaken; fire and fall back; stand and fight; and fire, then stand and fight.

It is possible for the charged unit to fall back out of range of the charging unit, who may then charge again if it has sufficient AP.

After all charges/reactions are finished, resolve melees for units still in contact.  All figures in a unit fight regardless of actual base contact.  Each side draws a card and adds applicable modifiers to its value.  High total wins this round.  The difference in totals is the number of losing figures that drop out of melee.  If tied, one figure on each side drops out.  Figures that drop out of melee normally go to the rear of their unit and no longer participate.  They automatically reform with their unit after the melee.  However, in any round that the enemy drew a Red card, figures lost go to the Rally Zone instead.

When only one side has figures left in the melee that haven’t dropped out or gone to the Rally Zone, that side wins the melee.  The losing unit(s) retreat 3d10 inches in open formation from the point of contact and become Shaken.  For each inch it is unable to retreat, a unit loses one figure to the Rally Zone.  Any winning unit(s) immediately regroup into any allowed formation.  They may then expend an AP (if available) to advance 1d10”.  If they contact the enemy, roll for the enemy’s reaction to charge.  If neither side has figures left able to fight, the melee is a draw and both sides retreat 2d10” becoming shaken.

After all Melees have been completed, you begin the Morale Phase.  In the morale phase, players attempt to recover figures from the Rally Zone.  The Rally Zone is an off-table box (I used the bookshelf behind me in my game room) where casualties are kept until their ultimate fate is determined.  Draw one card for each figure and consult the Rally Zone Table.  Figures that die or rout are removed from the game.  Results include:  Heart:  Dies; Diamond:  Stays in Rally Zone to Captured to Dies (depending on the Nationality); Other card:  Return to Unit or Return to any leader (again, depending on the Nationality).

After all figures are accounted for, complete the Morale Check:  each shaken unit must check morale.  Roll d100 vs its Morale Level (M).  M = (1/2 Unit Initiative) + (2 X Number of figures remaining in unit).  The fewer the figures remaining in a unit, the more difficult it will be for the unit to remain in the game.  The results are either the unit returns to normal, or it retreats 2d10" and stays shaken.

The Shaken condition has effects throughout the game:  it halves Initiative and Coolness for all Command, Reaction, Charge Reaction and Morale checks.

A unit about to retreat off the table gets an extra “last ditch” morale check.  If it fails it is removed from the game (routed, and ran away).  This is done regardless of what phase the turn is currently in (i.e., Action, Melee, etc).

You then check to see if any victory conditions have been met.  If not, then reshuffle the deck and start a new turn.  Any AP that units may have remaining are now lost before proceeding to the next turn.

And that's the rules synopsis for Pith Helmet.  Not terribly brief but still shorter than the actual rules, so that's something....

Fictionalizing My Game

A Reaction-based game lends itself very well to role-playing, or at least adds a role-playing aspect to an otherwise dry miniatures game.  The first thing to ask, when a Reaction causes an unintended sequence of events, is:  Why did that unit do that?  Obviously they did it because the d100 roll told them to do it.  But at a deeper level, Why?  Obviously they did it because the Officer misread the situation; or because the NCO is actually a coward; or because the Natives didn't expect that kind of withering firepower from the Imperials; and so on.

That is what was so enjoyable for me in Death in the Jungle, coming up with explanations for why the troops were acting as they did.  I think (and I hope) you can see it when you read my story.  Now that you have an understanding of the sequence of gameplay, it should be quite apparent what was happening game-wise in the story.  When the Captain hesitated or waited, it was because the card draw wouldn't let me activate, or the Natives activated first.  Sometimes the reactions took the "plot" right out of my hands.

Shaken units are worrisome, because even with a high-I Officer leading them, when you halve it and roll poorly, they can still run away!  In Pith Helmet, there is no provision for a nearby un-shaken unit rallying a shaken unit; it would be easy enough to "house rule" it, but as it is the shaken unit stands or falls on its own merit.

I earnestly encourage you to give Pith Helmet a try.  It really is fun.

My next project using Pith Helmet will be with my "classic" French Foreign Legion fighting against North African Arabs, Berbers and Tauregs.  I have got them purchased, and have just begun the painting process.  I plan to use the "dip" method to speed my painting time, since I have 100-200 Arabs to paint.  I will chronicle as I am able.

Unfortunately, Pith Helmet does not directly address either the FFL or the North African tribesmen, which is why I had to use them in Death in the Jungle "as British," etc.  I will likely do the same thing next time, unless I can pester Don into creating a Nationality add-on!

Don Bailey can be reached at
Stephen Luscombe can be reached at

Thanks for reading, and I hope this was informative and helpful. 

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